Bua uuh Guul

Back in the disco days when we encountered a person of undecipherable gender, we would turn to each other and ask “bua uuh guul?” The phrase became part of our vocabulary when someone overheard a pimp on the sidewalk approach a potential customer and offer him his choice of gender in a playmate. Not only was the john’s predilection unclear, what was available was pretty murky too.

Gender confusion and challenging sex role stereotypes has always been a preoccupation of mine. As documented in a recently published book, Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating.

When I first saw the words “ethics” and “curators” together I thought “not another rehash of the frolicking I did back in 1973.” Those allegations involving The Detroit Institute of Art staff have been laid to rest years ago.

Then I realized it was referring to the Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art show held in Manhattan in 1982. My friend Charley Brown did a series of paintings of me in the early 80’s, a couple of which were in that New Museum show.

The portrait included in the book is one of my favorites because of Charley’s use of found materials: layers of cardboard glued together, appliqued toothpicks adding dimension to Brian’s sequined top. There’s gutter in that glamour.

The timing of that show coincided with my waning interest in drag. The derring-do and shock of what I’d done before was no longer there and my falling out with Jim had left me without focus. Plus, RuPaul was on the ascendant and about to change the drag landscape completely. I like to think I helped make the world safe for Ru. Then I think what a miserable failure I’ve been. No one’s safe from that bitch.

My friend Charley did a series of B paintings, a couple were in this show

On my trip to Indiana this month I reunited with Susan in Bloomington who I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. One of the things we reminisced about was the evening she gave me makeup lessons. As we listened to Ike & Tina records in her apartment that night, she went over the basics of eye makeup. And told me my practice of the art was particularly abysmal.

On our recent visit I tried to convince her that precision wasn’t nearly as important back in those days as how I presented myself. She would have none of it. She chided that anything worth doing was worth doing well. Then, out of the blue, she asked whether I identified as a woman or a man.

The question is an obvious one and the way the discussion seems to be framed these days. But it caught me completely off guard. The essence of my being never entered into my thinking when I did drag. It was all about what I could get away with. And looking good while I did it.

I told Susan the only thing I’ve ever identified as was a troublemaker.

Cherry

Gimme Danger Little Stranger

My first drag age 6. I was pissed I didn't get to be Zorro. Until I learned I got to wear make-up. I never looked back.
My first drag, age 6. I was pissed I didn’t get to be Zorro. Until I learned I got to wear make-up. I never looked back.

The Halloween night I won the contest at the ‘N Touch I stumbled home at 2 a.m. I could hear my roommate snoring so I tiptoed down the hall to my room.

I was half undressed when I heard someone stirring. This cute little Aussie boy opened my door wearing just underwear and a smile. Apparently roomie had passed out mid-coitus and Down Under had been left unfulfilled. We started making out and fell into bed.

As I pulled off the rest of my clothes he said, “leave the pantyhose on.”

I said, “nah, I’m not really into that.”

He immediately asked, “can I wear them?”

I said, “sure.” A good time was had by all.

Attitudes toward drag were changing. Ten years before I had started out innocently enough as an androgynous waif trying to look like Mick. It shocked the Indiana locals. That look was augmented when my friends and I began to mock old school drag.

The older queens’ goal in drag was to pass. My generation’s was to challenge. Old school gays were often filled with self loathing and seemed to accept that violence was a necessary evil in or out of drag. My friends and I were having none of that.

One of my all-time favorites. We put my hair up into an impromptu French roll for Mark's birthday.
One of my all-time favorites. We put my hair up into an impromptu French roll for Mark’s birthday.

There were always stories of gay men being beaten up and, in particular, a carload of drag queens being shot at coming out of the Waffle House late one night. (Bloomington is 20 miles from the home of Indiana’s KKK.)

I was assaulted one afternoon just walking down the street. Wearing appropriate (for me) mid-day attire, a car of frat boys sped by calling me names and hurling a pumpkin at me. I was too quick, they missed.

What had been shocking in Bloomington was not so much in San Francisco. Charles Pierce, Goldie Glitter and the Cockettes had the local population somewhat inured. In the mid-70s drag’s new antagonist became the gay community itself.

As the gay rights movement became more middle class there was a feeling that male femininity needed to be purged from the image. Drag queens gave gay people a bad name.

The faux-butch lumberjack look became the antidote to the queeny hair dresser stereotype. This hyper-masculine uniform looked good. Until the guy opened his mouth.

One last drag, 1995. Backstage at the Rococo Club waiting to get dressed.
The last drag, 1995. Backstage at the Rococo Club waiting to get dressed.

In 1976 I was invited to an A-list party in Pacific Heights for someone leaving to study at the Comedie Francaise. It was going to be a pretentious and boring affair which I didn’t want to attend.  The dress code would be strictly Macy’s Lifestyle.

But I was friends of the host and had no choice.  I hadn’t planned on drag but at the last-minute I decided to act out and slapped on eyeliner,  some Red Red, a wig and a dress. I was a disheveled but appealing  mess. My signature look.

My arrival was like Scarlet at Miss Melly’s birthday, the entire room was in stunned silence. This was not the place for that.

In a kill or be killed moment I spotted a friend at the far end of the room. I calmly walked towards him ignoring all the eyes that were on me. Ernie greeted me with a big bear hug. Slowly the party warmed up again.

An hour later the ice had melted in the room and in the bourbon. A drunk hunk in his Castro flannel shirt, hiking boots and handlebar moustache cornered me. With a sense of urgency he asked, “What size are those heels? A 10? I think I can fit into them.”

My party for the Library's Gay & Lesbian Center raised $5,000.
My party for the Library’s Gay & Lesbian Center raised $5,000.

Five years after that I was in the Midnight Sun talking to this cute kid 10 years younger than me. He was so excited, he’d just come up with a drag name and was getting ready to dress up for the first time. Drag had become an accepted gay rite of passage.

I held a few drag parties in the 80’s but AIDS took its toll on my mailing list. And my closest friends. I had done best when I was someone’s muse but, truth be told, I was never quite sure what I was doing. It wasn’t as much fun on my own.

The torch had been passed to RuPaul’s generation. Miss Paul took that flame and turned it into an oil rig fire.

Today I love watching Drag Race and queens like Alaska Thunderfuck (who I adore and want to marry. Or at least boink.) I wasn’t as accomplished as they are at producing a look but I’m satisfied with what I did.

I did drag when drag was dangerous.

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The complete saga, From the Beginning